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It’s time to get moving on outdoor playgrounds for the senior set

The facilities are springing up in Europe and Asia, and are helping older folks improve balance and retain range of motion.

The playgrounds generally cluster together low-impact exercise equipment that promotes balance and flexibility.
Courtesy of Xccent Fitness

My history in athletics is pretty dismal. Lack of talent and coordination made me the last chosen for every team, and no matter how much my classmates and friends cheered (“C’mon, Marlys, you can do it!”), the volleyball I served or the baseball I hit would travel a few feet and then fall to the ground as though made of solid lead.

But I did excel on the playground. I could swing, teeter-totter and slide with Olympian panache and even make my way across the tallest rungs of a jungle gym.

Now at the advanced age of I’m-not-telling, I eye kids’ playgrounds with envy. I would love to zip down a slide, but I can barely rise from an armchair without whining about my knees. What’s more, my behind is much too wide for a child’s slide. I would probably get stuck halfway down and have to call 911 for rescue.

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Well, guess what?

There’s an emerging movement to develop playgrounds for seniors: In anticipation of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China constructed 50,000 playgrounds for adults to boost the nation’s fitness quotient. Japan in recent years created so-called Nursing Care Prevention Parks for the more than 20 percent of its population over age 65. In fact, because of the overload of seniors, it’s been tearing down children’s playgrounds to replace them with varieties that are intergenerational. In 2009, England launched a seniors playground in Hyde Park after residents campaigned for more equipment to help older people stay fit. And such facilities have cropped up in several other European countries.

The Hyde Park facility caught the attention of Michael Cohen, a Englishman who now lives in Ithaca, N.Y. A children’s playground designer with 20 years’ experience, he’s helped grass-roots organizations all over the world (and in the Twin Cities) to develop new playgrounds. Taken with the idea of getting older adults to exercise — while having fun — he founded Must Have Play, a company dedicated to creating what he calls “wellness playgrounds for elders.”

Range of motion

Such playgrounds generally cluster together low-impact exercise equipment that promotes balance and flexibility — for example, static bikes, body flexors and small obstacle courses that have people climbing up and down stairs, walking on a series of pedals that move back and forth and buttons and knobs to exercise arthritic fingers.

The equipment won’t provide any challenge to a 20-year-old, but, says Cohen, “We’re not trying to create body-builders.” Instead the hope is to improve balance to decrease falls, which can be a death sentence for the elderly. (Annually, 1,800 falls directly result in death for those over age 65; another 9,500 deaths each year are indirect results of falls by seniors.)

The equipment also trains people to increase their range of motion so they can perform routine activities, such as bending down and retrieving a sock from under the bed. Yet another purpose: reducing social isolation. “After people retire, they tend to stay at home alone,” Cohen adds. Getting them outdoors moving in a group will nourish their souls, he believes.

So far, Must Have Play is too new to have built anything yet. But Cohen is hoping to persuade housing developers, nursing home providers and parks departments to add them to their facilities.

Alternative to the gym

Xccent, a homegrown company based in Wyoming, Minn., which has been manufacturing playground equipment for the past 30 years, recently developed its own senior sport division. It manufactures equipment licensed from Lappset, a Finnish company. According to sales director Guy Chaham, Xccent has helped to build 600 of the playgrounds in Spain, eight in Mexico, and parks in Arizona, Florida and Michigan. A standard rig costs about $21,000.

Chaham believes that the logical customers for such equipment are gated senior communities, nursing homes, assisted living facilities and large employers who want to give older staffers an alternative to the gym. He doesn’t expect the “wellness systems” to go into public parks, however. “If they do, children will use them, and if children use them, seniors won’t.”

A Lappset senior sport promotional video.
I don’t know about that. An old bat myself, I find the idea of playing with children much less humiliating (or humbling) than exercising at a gym in the company of impossibly well-toned and hunky 30-year-olds.  

The great outdoors

All of which brings me to a question: So what’s wrong with the indoor gym? Can’t seniors simply go there?  Well, they could — and many do. But recent studies have shown that outdoor exercise may actually be more beneficial.

For example, when two groups of volunteers were asked to take a walk, one indoors on a treadmill and one outdoors, those who walked outdoors scored higher on measures of vitality, self-esteem and enthusiasm and lower on tension, depression and fatigue than those who exercised indoors. And of course, the more you like doing something, the more often you’ll do it. And, sure enough, a 2012 study of older adults found that those who exercised outside exercised longer and more often than those working out indoors.

I called Minneapolis Board Parks & Recreation to find out whether senior playgrounds are on the agenda, but haven’t heard back yet. With 77 million Baby Boomers heading into the crotchety years, maybe it’s time to give this idea a try.